Every election cycle the major candidates for the White house have a major theme for their campaigns. These are often even a mantra that they repeat over and over again. This has gone back, at least, since the dawn of the modern media age of politics. Short attention spans and ten-second sound bites have required the use of such themes.
Most recently we have seen the following themes of presidential candidates that ended up winning the White House. How their terms matched up with their themes, is a study in contrasts.
Bill Clinton ran on the theme of having the “most ethical” White House in modern history. The most noted of his scandals was his sexual relationship with a young intern. If this incident would have happened today, with the new rules about sex behavior, Clinton would have been treated as a rapist by much of the media. Even without that perception, it was bad enough for him to lie under oath, which led to perjury charges and the threat of impeachment. In fact, he came incredibly close to being impeached.
George W. Bush ran on a theme of a much smaller role for the U.S. in global affairs and ending the era of being the world’s police force. That idea fell as dramatically as the World Trade Center did in 2001. This was understandable to a certain extent, but I do not think most policy wonks would think this would translate into the U.S. developing and applying a policy of neoconservatism on steroids, with his so-called “Bush Doctrine” (a policy that largely continued under Obama). The “Bush Doctrine” was coined by Charles Krauthammer in June 2001 to describe the Bush administration’s “unilaterally withdrawing from the ABM treaty and rejecting the Kyoto protocol.” Several months later (after September 11, 2001) it become a regular part of the political rhetoric as the Bush administration took actions on its own, without the agreement of international organizations or allies, to preemptively “protect” the American people.
Very rarely is there serious talk about impeaching a president, but Trump reached that level of conversation in record time.
Barack Obama ran on the theme of providing the “most transparent” White House in history. The joke among his critics became that the desire of this man to hide his agenda was very “transparent.” His administration broke records for stalling on Freedom of Information requests, went to extraordinary lengths to protect his college records from the media, and quickly reversed his decision to make health care reform conversations available to public scrutiny and open meetings. Also, the lengths that were required to get him to release something as basic as a birth certificate has been legendary.
Finally, enter Donald Trump, who has singlehandedly made his predecessors look like Boy Scouts with his nefarious behaviors. Trump’s campaign theme was very popular and well received — “drain the swamp.” It reminded me of my years of working in DC. The Potomac River became a metaphor for all the corruption the nation’s capital was famous for. Friends of mine used to joke, “thanks to all the dead bodies, you can practically walk on that water.” In fact, for many, the Potomac River was a pretty solid visual representation of “the swamp” Trump loved to talk about.
Very rarely is there serious talk about impeaching a president, but Trump reached that level of conversation in record time. Rarely have I seen a member of the president’s party in Congress discuss the viable grounds of impeachment so early, but we are seeing a few doing just that with the accusations flying that Trump may have fired his now former FBI director in order to obstruct an investigation because of a possible connection between Trump’s team and the Russian government. Some people are comparing those actions as being very similar to those taken by the Nixon White House during Watergate. Then there is the huge list of other suspicious actions, such as profiting from government as Trump travels and stays at his own businesses on taxpayer dollars, or not properly distancing the government from his personal business, or how the White House is beginning to look like a family business. The list is impressive and growing.
So, what is the latest? The New York Times reports the shocking headline, “White House Moves to Block Ethics Inquiry Into Ex-Lobbyists on Payroll.” This is unheard of and has the potential to create the exact kind of murkiness that is the definition of a “swamp.”
The next time you see presidential candidates with a theme or mantra, watch it closely. History shows it is likely a declaration of their biggest weakness rather than strength.